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St. Petersburg's Congregation B'nai Israel celebrates the LGBTQ community with its fourth annual Pride Shabbat

ST. PETERSBURG - When Dorothy Bowser and her partner, Elizabeth Unruh, planned to move from New York City to St. Petersburg, some friends questioned whether they would find a welcoming LGBTQ community.

The women, who have been together for more than 25 years, found that welcome in both their secular and religious lives. Bowser, incoming president of Congregation B'nai Israel, served as committee chair of the synagogue's Pride Shabbat last year.

Friday the synagogue will hold its fourth Pride Shabbat. The service of prayers, readings and music to welcome the Sabbath is expected to draw hundreds of LGBTQ Jews, interfaith couples, church groups, families and allies. A cocktail reception will cap the evening and the next day, for the first time, the Pride celebration will continue with a Saturday morning Sabbath service. A special luncheon is planned after.

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Rabbi Philip Weintraub is looking forward to his first Pride Shabbat at the synagogue that hired him last year. Friday evening's liturgy will be traditional, but "we will spice up our melodies a little bit," said Weintraub,who will lead the service with Cantor Jonathan Schultz. "We've asked everyone to dress vibrantly. I have a special prayer shawl that is all tie-dyed and colorful that I'll be wearing. My wife got me rainbow suspenders. I've got rainbow socks."

Those who attend will be offered rainbow kippot, or yarmulkes - head coverings - custom-made for the occasion. Rabbi Bryan Mann, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom of Brandon and this year's guest speaker, will bring his own.

"I walk around in a rainbow kippah and that rainbow kippah stays on my head regardless of whether I am leading services from the pulpit or whether I am drinking in a gay bar," said Mann, who is gay. "For a long time, religion has been seen as the oppressor. I try to signal there is a place for you as an LGBTQ+ person in Judaism and there's a place for you as a Jewish, or religious, person in LGBTQ+ spaces as long as you are not using religion to oppress queer people."

It was Bowser who raised the idea of a Pride Shabbat during a discussion with a Congregation B'nai Israel board member. In New York, she and Unruh had worshiped at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a Manhattan synagogue founded in 1973 to serve LGBTQ Jews.

"We talked about our experience and we said that we thought that with St. Petersburg being such a gay-friendly city, it would be important for our synagogue to be a gay-friendly synagogue," Bowser said. "The first year nearly blew our socks off. ... You don't always have a lot of opportunity to be part of change. Anytime you can be part of change, you have created a part of a modern miracle. I am also very fortunate to be a part of a synagogue that is open to change."

Mann, 30, who is leading his first synagogue, spoke about being appreciative and surprised to have been asked to be Friday's speaker.

"We wanted to try to find that intersection between someone who is Jewish and openly gay and can bring a community together as a speaker," said Eve Epstein, chair of this year's Pride Shabbat committee and Congregation B'nai Israel's second vice president. "He is new to the area and could speak to LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community from the pulpit."

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which launched the gay rights movement. It's something Mann said he will talk about, "that moment in history and how both Jewish life and secular life have grown." The first Pride march was based on activism, he said. "I do desire days where we are just like happy and celebrating and not thinking about the struggles and what we have to do and where we have to go. But it is important to think about what our goal is. Is our goal to raise the consciousness of where we are in public life and political life?"

The Pride parade and after parties should be celebratory, he said, but "we need to uplift the activist history of Pride."

Epstein, who grew up attending Congregation B'nai Israel, said it has become more inclusive.

"And I think, generally, we are recognizing that our congregation is evolving and that we are a part of a broader community and part of that is having more inclusive services," said Epstein, who recently married St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who is Christian and will attend Friday's Pride Shabbat. "I think Pride Shabbat is a wonderful example of how we can bring the community together and demonstrates a real desire among the congregants to be a part of something larger in St. Petersburg."

Weintraub said that helped draw him to the St. Petersburg synagogue.

"To me, it said a lot about the community and where their values were and it fit my vision of the Jewish community, that it is one that is authentic to our traditions rooted to Jewish law and faith and yet also opens the door to all," he said. "I support Pride because of my faith, not despite my faith."

Pride Shabbat, he added, is "a way of revitalizing and re-engaging people, because when you see a celebration in your sanctuary, that says you are a part of the community, you are not on the periphery, you are not less than, you are the community."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

If you go

. Fourth Annual Pride Shabbat, 6:30 p.m. Friday, followed by a cocktail party, Congregation B'nai Israel, 300 58th St. N, St. Petersburg. Saturday, 9 a.m. traditional service, followed by lunch. The synagogue will set up a booth Sunday at the St. Pete Pride Festival.

. Pride Shabbat, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Temple Beth-El, 400 Pasadena Ave. S, St. Petersburg. The temple will participate in Saturday's St. Pete Pride Parade.

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